Bellefonte Fire Company Faces Future Financing Problems

Walker Township Fire Company will hold a meeting Tuesday to discuss funding restrictions and the current level of fire protection.

Walker Township Fire Company will hold a meeting Tuesday to discuss funding restrictions and the current level of fire protection.

To discuss the future of Walker Township Fire Company’s finances and level of fire protection, the Fire Department is holding a public meeting this week to educate the public about growing concerns and gather feedback.

Disagreements between the Fire Department and Walker Township supervisors in recent years led to this meeting, which has been held independently by the Fire Department. It is set for Aug. 16 at 7:00 PM at The Walker Township Fire Company, 125 Fire House Lane, Howard, and the Fire Department is inviting all residents to attend.

The regulators are not against funding the fire company, but the two entities have reached a roadblock when it comes to: how the municipality has to finance the fire brigade.

Since 1999, Walker Township has had a $1 million fire protection tax, which generates approximately $107,000. To help the fire service “move forward” and budget for high cost items, such as a new tanker or engine, more money is needed. So it asked the Walker Township Supervisors to add 1 mil to the pre-existing fire protection tax, bringing the total to two mils.

Chris Harter, president of the fire department, said the average Walker Township homeowner currently pays between $50 and $85 in fire protection taxes. Adding another million doubles what they are currently paying.

‘The fire brigade is not broken. But we’re not getting anywhere,” he said. “And if we can’t move forward, the community will suffer in the future.”

Chris Miller, treasurer of the firefighting company, said he noticed in 2018-2019 that the company was beginning to show a loss. It wasn’t anything major, he said, but the income didn’t keep up with the expenses.

Like other fire departments in the region, fundraising has declined over the years. Donation rides are down nearly 50% from the past, and truck maintenance costs have become more expensive, Miller said. In recent years, more than $20,000 has been spent annually on servicing obsolete trucks. Plus, the cost of everything is rising. In 2000, the fire company purchased a new fire truck pump, a demonstration model, for $232,000. That same piece would cost about $750,000 today, Miller said.

Each year, the company creates an operating budget, Miller said, but said you can’t do that and plan for future growth and costs if you don’t have a guaranteed source of income.

“Fundraising is never guaranteed, I mean, COVID has proven that. You know, one year you can do really great, the next year it can be miserable, while the fire load is pretty stable as long as people pay their taxes. It’s a guaranteed source of income that we can cut back on,” Miller said.

Volunteer firefighters shouldn’t be spending their time on fundraising, Harter and Miller said. Some firefighters are even using vacation time from their paid jobs to have time to raise money, Harter added.

“If we have to spend most of our time fundraising, that takes away from training or being out in the community to do better and other things besides trying to make money to supplement income. And that’s not what we’re here for, you know, we’re here to be… community firefighters,” Harter said.

Even with a millennium increase, Harter said it won’t move the fire service “forward.”

If the department wants to buy a new fire truck, it must have the down payment for the chassis up front, Harter said. Depending on the chassis, it could be anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000, which the department doesn’t have, he said.

“But you have to have that kind of money in advance to be able to get a loan, because that’s your down payment. “Your down payment is the chassis to then be able to get a 2% loan,” Harter said. If the city council took the extra million, it would take the department three years to save enough money to get the down payment, plus two more. years to get the truck built, he said.

Reduction of fire protection?

The fire service’s social media post said, among other things, whether the level of fire protection should be lowered in line with current funding restrictions, or whether the funding level should be increased to continue supporting the fire and rescue. protection needs of the community.”

Harter said the department has a 1996 tanker and a 1995 rescue that are “one mechanical failure away from us who can’t afford it — or be able to get the parts to fix them.” If that were to happen, they would have to take those vehicles that are critical to the fire service out of service.

“We are still fairly rural, so a fire tanker is needed. We still have a lot of agricultural areas where we don’t have fire hydrants, or good fire hydrants. So we need that 1,500 (gallon) of water that comes right away to put out a fire,” Harter said. “And our rescue is covering all of our rescue equipment, you know, going up and down this road, Route 64 and the surrounding areas that are currently very populated with traffic because of… the influx. So our two largest vehicles that we need are due for replacement.”

If there’s a car accident that requires rescue and their rescue is out of order, they should probably wait for Pleasant Gap to rescue them, Miller said. That can add 15 minutes to the time it takes to get the patient out of the car.

Not having those individuals in use can also impact ISO classification, a score that indicates how prepared a community is for fires based on various factors. Having a higher rating can mean higher insurance rates for homeowners, Miller said.

The Walker Township Fire Company has two stations; the main station in Hublersburg and a satellite station in Zion. Zion’s station is vital, Harter said, because that’s where the largest population resides.

But that station would likely be temporarily shut down if energy costs continue to rise, Harter said. The Hublersburg station has enough space to house all the fire engines, although this would affect the response time for the people in Zion.

If the Zion station closed, the company could lease that space for additional revenue, Miller said.

For financing, but not for tax increases

This discussion has been going on for years. The fire service first approached the municipality for another million euros in 2019. Deb Zimmerman, the municipality’s supervisor, said she is not against funding from the fire service. She just doesn’t want to raise taxes to do that.

Supervisors have allocated $80,000 from the general fund budget to give to the fire service because it was unable to hold its annual gun raffle due to COVID, Zimmerman said, and in 2021 the council gave the fire service $125,000 to pay debts.

“My view as a regulator is that we have enough money in our general fund to cover their request for money without passing it on to residents as a tax,” Zimmerman said. Supervisor Keith Harter agreed.

The board came up with the idea of ​​an ordinance that would create a special fund within the general fund for the fire service. Zimmerman said they were offering $125,000 to be added to the fund annually, which is more than what would bring in a million. But recently, the fire department turned down the ordinance, Zimmerman said, over disagreements over who would be in control of the money.

Chris Harter disputed that, stating that the only proposal the council offered did not include financial numbers or a long-term perspective.

“It was basically that they put on paper what they planned to check. Unfortunately, the fire service saw no good reason to consider this deal, it is not good for the community for regulators to dictate what equipment is needed for the safety of life and to protect homes and property,” Chris Harter wrote in a text message. message .

Supervisor Harter, who is also a member of the fire service, said he does not see the fire service having to shut down Zion station. Even if they did, he said, it wouldn’t be a huge saving for the fire service.

“Some people who wouldn’t be within a five-mile radius of a fire hall … wouldn’t get any encouragement or credit on their homeowners’ insurance they currently get,” Supervisor Harter said. “Other than that, it would be reaction time, because that time would be from Hublersburg, Bellefonte or Pleasant Gap. We’ll probably talk for a few minutes.”

Supervisor James Heckman is also a member of the fire service, but unlike the other supervisors, he is in favor of the extra millage. He said he filed a motion last year to increase the fire protection tax, but withdrew the motion after it failed to get a second one.

“I’m behind this fire department,” Heckman said.

This story was originally published August 15, 2022 10:31 AM.

Halie Kines reports on local government for the Center Daily Times. She grew up in Penns Valley and graduated from Penn State.

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